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James Bond: The spy who loved to look cool

The new Bond movie marks 50 years of understated spy chic and villainous verve. John Walsh dons his tuxedo to take a look at a new exhibition of design from the 23 films
  • @johnhenrywalsh

"There has been no bigger icon of British design style over [the last] 50 years," says the Barbican's genial boss Nicholas Kenyon, "than James Bond." Really? Has the fictional agent 007 been a more influential design creation in the last half-century than Mary Quant's miniskirts, Terence Conran's white plates, Ron Arad's furniture, James Dyson's household products or Vivienne Westwood's frocks?

Probably not. But we sort of know what Kenyon means, don't we? In 23 movies over five decades, the Bond films established a template of off-hand heroism and high-gloss adventure that effectively bullied the world into believing they were cool, stylish and happening. The films were actually about as stylish as old Martini TV commercials, the kind that showed Mediterranean playboys relaxing on yachts with their laughing blonde companions. The movies existed in a bubble of faux sophistication, with rich, scarred villains bent on world domination, with homes in travel-guide locations and beautiful girlfriends whom they mistreated. And a hero who wore, and drove, and drank and moved through a whole department store of cool stuff that we ourselves couldn't afford; and got to shag the villains' cast-off, vengeful mistresses, plus anyone else with breasts who wandered into the action.

James Bond as a character wasn't ever cool – in the early films he was a terrible fusspot about champagne, and complained about needing earmuffs to listen to the Beatles. His later incarnation was abused by his boss M as a "sexist dinosaur". But he was (as Ian Fleming conceived him) an efficient machine when it came to killing, running, dodging bullets, and piloting cars, planes, tanks and speedboats, and he was old-fashionedly saucy with the ladies. Whatever was going on in England at the time – flower power, glam rock, punk, Thatcherism, New Romantics, Britpop – the various incarnations of James could always be found being heroic in bespoke suits, commandeering motorbikes, being suave with bosomy horizontales, and electrocuting baddies, in landscapes full of money and foreign exotica.

As we wait for the new Bond movie, Skyfall, to knock us for six in October – on the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Dr No, released in 1962 – we can refresh our memories of celluloid Bondage at the Barbican this summer. Designing 007 – Fifty Years of Bond Style is an exhibition that tries to give a flavour of the whole shooting match, the sets, props, costumes, cars, gadgets, stunts – but also the credits, posters, storyboards and special effects.

The show is designed by Ab Rogers, most famous for restyling the motorway Little Chef at Popham with Heston Blumenthal. It's co-curated by Lindy Hemming, who did wardrobe design on five Bond movies, and the fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave, whose book about Oscar-night fashions, Made for Each Other, deals as much with films as frocks.

"We hope that when a visitor finishes the show, they'll understand what has gone into designing a Bond film," says Cosgrave. "They'll walk in through a gun barrel, enter a golden domain to commemorate the golden anniversary, visit M's office, look at gadgets in Q Branch, enter a casino, then visit the foreign territories which Bond visited."

They're dedicating a room to Bond villains, from the thinly smiling Dr Julius No with the contact lenses and artificial hands in Dr No, to the ruthless business mogul Dominic Greene with the sidekick called Elvis, in Quantum of Solace. For purists, no Bond movie is complete without an unfeasibly huge cavern in which the bad guy plans world domination. Space considerations, alas, preclude a life-size exhibit of Hugo Drax's space station in Moonraker, or Karl Stromberg's submersible Atlantis in The Spy Who Loved Me.

"But we have drawings of Blofeld's lair in On Her Majesty's Secret Service [the one at the top of the Swiss Alps]," says Cosgrave. "We've gone to the archive and hand-picked items that will recreate it. We're screening the greatest scenes from the films and displaying objects that went into their design. The final room in the exhibition is the Ice Palace, from Die Another Day, and that's quite fantastic."

The word "costume" hardly seems to fit James Bond. He always wears business suits, because he's supposedly an executive working for "Universal Exports". Sometimes he wears shorts, for running along beaches, and occasionally a tuxedo, for those crucial casino visits. That's it, isn't it? Has there been much evolution from Connery to Craig?

"Terence Young, who directed Dr No and groomed Sean Connery to play Bond, sent him to his tailor [and Ian Fleming's], namely Anthony Sinclair," says Cosgrave. "At the time Sinclair's signature design was the Conduit Cut, inspired by the athletic physique of his clients, many of whom were former Guards officers. The trousers had a very slim fit and the jacket was a hacking jacket with a longer cut. That suit's been copied several times. It's served as a reference point for all later designers, right up to Tom Ford with Daniel Craig."

And the tuxedos? Our first sighting of Bond, after all, is in a white tux… "No," Cosgrave says firmly, "it's black. He's in a casino called Le Circle, and the first sight is of his cuffs – a homage to Ian Fleming's turned-back suit cuffs."

When we think of the 80-odd Bond girls who have shimmered and flirted through the 23 films, exhibiting all feisty, gun-toting, research-scientist, feminist bona fides before getting their kit off for 007, we recall a succession of swimming costumes and evening gowns, like in old Miss World shows. The organisers insist there's more to it than that.

"What fascinated me when I started to examine the films," says Cosgrave, "was that the costume designers worked with the best fashion designers. There was always a strong, directional fashion style, from Pussy Galore's trouser suit – women weren't wearing trousers back then – to today when Muccia Prada adapts her clothes for the screen."

There are two pieces of Prada in the exhibition – the black dress Camille Montes wore when crossing the desert with Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace, and the red top Michelle Yeoh wore playing Wei Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies.

"Hubert de Givenchy dressed Lois Chiles for Moonraker, and we have the black satin jumpsuit she wore when escaping from Jaws in a Sugarloaf Mountain cable-car." And who designed the maddest costume of all – that of the murderous May Day, played by Grace Jones in A View to a Kill? "Azzedine Alaia. He was her friend, she was his muse and she recommended him for the film."

Don't tell Cosgrave that the cars and gadgets and accessories you see in James Bond movies are basically boys' fantasy toys, the thriller equivalent of Wallace and Gromit. She insists that each Bond film was just ahead of contemporary technology.

"In the first room, there's a drawing of Goldfinger's jet, which was modelled on Lyndon Johnson's. Remember the Ericsson flip-phone Pierce Brosnan used in Tomorrow Never Dies? The whole flip-phone concept was launched the following year. And the BMW R1200 motorbike that Bond and Wai Lin drove through Ho Chi Minh City in the same film – that great stunt scene? – BMW launched that later on. The Bombardier Skidoo [snowmobile] in Die Another Day – that was its first appearance, and it later went out commercially."

In the "Q Branch" sector of the show, visitors can see the progression of gadgets from the early sketches from John Stears ("the real Q") to the special-effects department at Pinewood, where they were built and tried out. "We have an Aston Martin DB5," says Cosgrave, "we have the technical drawings, the models, the 'snooper' dogbot [mini-robot] from A View to a Kill, the piton weapon we see Pierce Brosnan fire in Goldeneye. We have drawings of the Bondola [the gondola that converted into a turbo-powered hovercraft in Moonraker] and the Q-Boat in The World is Not Enough."

There's clearly a treat in store for Bond-ophiles from next week until early September. But, while admiring the passion that's going into the exhibition (and the awesome research conducted by Cosgrave and her team), I've yet to be convinced that the Bond movies had a life outside their bubble of sophistication. Could Cosgrave give me one example of how the films influenced lifestyles?

"Tailoring," she says shortly. "You just can't imagine how many British tailors have been asked by clients to make them look like Bond. I know because they told me. The films also put Martinis on the map. And there's the style Ken Adam innovated, juxtaposing modern, stainless steel and chrome, stuff with antiques. It was there right from the start, in Dr No's lair, a futuristic environment with an Old Master painting. On Goldfinger's jet there was a Braque and a French telephone. It's become a signature.

"I think Bond is still incredibly influential. The films showed a way of living which might have seemed far-fetched in the 1960s. But think of the techno-billionaires who collect Bond memorabilia at auctions, who want to live like him – and, because they have more money than ever now, think they can be him. The films continue to be a reference point for them."

God help us. I'm not sure we can take any more world domination.

Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style, Barbican, London EC2 6 July to 5 September (www.barbican.org.uk)